Student researchers spend summer with NASA

Ethan Haldeman and Veronica Sanford conducted space research in New Mexico

Courtney DuChene


For senior Veronica Sanford, this summer was an opportunity to relive a childhood fascination. Sanford studied Mars in her third grade gifted class and this summer she, along with junior Ethan Haldeman, was able to work for NASA at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico with the Mars rover, Curiosity.

The rover Curiosity was sent to Mars in 2011. It collects data using ChemCam, a device the Ursinus students worked with. The ChemCam is connected to the Mars rover.

According to Haldeman, it “shoots a laser at rocks to excite them in a plasma state and give off electromagnetic radiation.” This sends a spectrum of various wavelengths to the lab, which can then be used to identify elements.

Haldeman worked on writing a program to help evaluate the data being taken from the rover. He was specifically trying to detect boron.

“The only way it is generally accepted that borates, the oxide form of boron, could form on Mars is as an evaporite, or something that forms when water evaporates,” he said. This could help prove that Mars once had “some form of standing water.” While they will not be able to confirm how much water there was, being able to prove that standing water existed on Mars is a huge step.

Haldeman was also excited to be able to focus on doing chemistry research this summer after focusing on physics research last summer. He thought it was “really cool just being able to go and live in Los Alamos and to get to work on the Mars rover.”

Sanford’s work was a bit different. She was “brought on to deal with the huge data sets brought in by the rover.” Currently the rover is climbing Mount Sharp, a mountain in the middle of the crater Gale. The rover is trying to figure out the chemical composition of the soil.

“For the first few weeks I just had to go through all the data collected over the previous five years,” she said, “but after I got done with that I only had to focus on the data that was collected that day and I was able to focus on my own research.”

Sanford explained the point of that research and its implications: “On Earth, at any given elevation, composition should stay the same.”

Her efforts were meant to determine whether that rule is true for Mars as well. As the rover climbs Mount Sharp, the elevation will change drastically, making it an ideal time for Sanford’s study.

“My research will pave the way for data taken on composition throughout Mount Sharp.”

The students received the opportunity to work for NASA in Los Alamos this summer through Ursinus alumnus Patrick Gasda, a ChemCam research scientist. The students got to sit in on the morning meetings so they could see how NASA planned for what they were going to do each day and how their research site worked with others.

“While most of the people exist in Los Alamos and France, there are a lot of other places that do different instruments so there might be like ten, fifteen different organizations on the morning meeting call,” said Haldeman.

He thought it was incredible to see how they organized all of those different people during the meetings.

While Haldeman is not sure he wants to do this as a career, he has talked with  Gasda about returning to work on the project next summer. He hopes to be able to contribute to improving the program he worked on this summer or possibly to be involved with new projects.

“There’s a lot that can still be done with the program I worked on this summer, but I’m also open to working on different projects that interest me,” he said.

Both Sanford and Haldeman were very enthusiastic about their work. They gained experiences working in their majors as well as seeing how a large company managed its daily tasks. They will also be able to tell people that one of their summer jobs in college was working on the Mars rover–an experience that is truly out of this world.